Waxing Press

Book Review: Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson

book reviews, tastemakingIan Wissman

Serving as a meta-text on the American 21st century, Steve Erickson severs the country into at-war factions: Union and Disunion, into alternate history and future, into the rich history of song that's constantly performed over and over in America writing and rewriting itself. And drenched in Erickson's iconic, crepuscular prose, the dystopic vision he paints is rendered into subtle beauty where metaphor is the guiding principal for understanding everything.

In fact, when the writer-character in the novel says that "Everything that every writer writes is about everything," you get the impression he means that every single moment in history has within it the history of everything that precedes and succeeds it. This is is hashed out in the plotline concerning Elvis Presley's stillborn twin brother, Jesse. The novel envisions a world wherein Elvis was stillborn and Jesse was the one who survived (without the crooning-swooning voice of his [slightly] younger brother); a vision that alters the course of the American 20th century, shattering what know of our world (the timeline where Elvis lived, that is) into a shadow world. Causality is determinedly unclear in Erickson's alternative history in Shadowbahn, but in this shadow-world the Towers still came down on 9/11, and reappear here again as a reflector to the divided people of this nation, now existing in disunion (states and even cities secede from one another) a mere 20 years after the moment the towers fell. The thing about shadows is they take the shape of the occluding object, and it's hard not to see the US of A we live in bound by this shadow it has cast.

Erickson's imagery is stark, and it's clear to see where his politics lie in this divided nation (the one that exists in this reality, the one in which you live if you're currently reading this), but never have I seen the fall of the towers executed into such a sophisticated and complex metaphor for not just contemporary life in America, but as a breach of all of American history. History can't be segmented and compartmentalized. It's contextual and fluid. Sure there are hard facts to be its framing structure, but many spend their lives interpreting and rewriting it, rewriting our understanding of it, of us, of who we are and where we are and where we are going.

In the past 15+ years since the collapse of the Twin Towers, a number of writers have put their hat in the ring trying to ensnare the moment in a way that respects the history while making metaphor that extends to the existential. It's a genre unto itself, the 9/11 novel. From DeLillo's mediocre Falling Man to Pynchon's better-than-given-credit-for Bleeding Edge, Jess Walter's clever and alarming take in The Zero, Colum McCann's National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin and many, many more, it's Erickson's beautiful tome that will come out on top in this burgeoning American Genre.

I haven't verified its accuracy, but it's a damn good playlist even if it's taken liberties, but someone on Spotify has made a playlist here of all the songs mentioned through Steve Erickson's Shadowbahn.